When it comes to minimizing, or better yet avoiding penalties or fines from the FAA, sometimes the best way to communicate your point is to say nothing at all.
Riddle me this: What does a baseball home plate umpire have in common with your local FAA inspector?
They both have a strict set of approved written rules, yet each have the authority to call balls and strikes as they see them – even if their interpretation of the “strike zone” differs from the published rule. As an MLB batter you can either live with the calls or complain and get tossed from the game. As an aircraft technician, you try to comply with the rules the best you possibly can, but that compliance is unfortunately subject to interpretation. And quite often, while complaints about inconstancies won’t get you tossed, they can earn you a healthy fine.
Of course as a professional aircraft technician, your number one goal is to ensure safety even if that means going outside the regulation. But we’ll save that subject for another story.
Right now we want to concentrate on how you can ensure safety while avoiding any misunderstandings that can lead to FAA penalties and/or fines. To get first hand information on this difficult subject, we contacted Sarah MacLeod, executive director of the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA). Unfortunately, Ms. MacLeod and her team deal with situations like this on a daily basis.
Her first tip is to know and understand the procedures and rules of compliance better than your FAA inspector.
“If you actually know the rules and apply the guidance with a focus on aviation safety, the path to compliance is seldom rocky,” she stated. “However, if a certificate holder does not know the difference between complying with a regulation and ‘best practices’ or a ‘good idea’ or ‘local inspector preference’ – bad decisions are made.”
“One bad decision is becoming non-compliant, or even worse in my mind, not knowing when you are in compliance,” Ms. MacLeod said. “Both ills can be cured by knowledge and that comes with reading and understanding the regulations and guidance materials.”
While some understanding of regulations can be gained through discussions with business peers or your FAA representative, Ms. MacLeod cautioned that this kind of education must be taken with a grain of salt.
“Don’t be fooled into thinking this is knowledge. You may only be gaining another person’s perspective or opinion,” she said. “Regulations are laws. They can be ‘interpreted’ by the agency, but it is not the final arbiter of compliance – federal courts play that role.”
“Today, you have to be every bit as smart about the rules as your FAA inspector,” stated Richard Simmons, accountable manager for TPS Aerospace. “There is a lot of interpretation in the field. If there’s a problem you have to be able to point to the written rule and show how your processes meet it.”
Ms. MacLeod said that the best first line of compliance is to write a detailed procedural manual and then train everyone in your company to follow those “rules.”
“Failure to follow written procedures – starting with the regulations, is the number one finding we have in every audit,” she explained. “We find that shops often write procedures and then continually rewrite those procedures without taking the time to train the technicians to follow those new directions.”
“The fault for creation of mismanaged policies, processes and procedures can be laid at both the industry’s and government’s doorsteps,” Ms. MacLeod said. “However the government is the one that can fine companies and individuals.”
“Paper (process documentation) and training and the most important products a company can produce. You have to create a procedural manual for your entire operation and then train to it,” Simmons said. “That is probably the number one trap a shop will fall into. They can’t or don’t want to invest the time and money to develop the procedures and provide adequate training for their people.”
Best Laid Plans…
Of course, always remember that you are dealing with the FAA – think umpire – so even following the rules to the letter doesn’t guarantee compliance. You must have documentation and more importantly know why the documentation says what it does.
“One very important point is that it doesn’t matter if the agency ‘approved’ something – it can change its mind and that ‘approval’ does not mean compliance,” Ms. MacLeod said. “I cannot tell you how many certificate holders say, ‘But the FAA approved it.’ Unfortunately, my response is always: ‘So what. The agency doesn’t have to be right, you do.’”